Stop Press! Commissioner search meeting now will be mostly open to public!

BIPPS questions apparently caused reflection

I wrote yesterday about a problematic announcement of a short-notice meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education to evaluate and select a search firm to help find the next Kentucky Commissioner of Education. I listed a number of concerns including the fact that several of the events on the agenda for this May 7, 2015 meeting in Louisville were to be held in private, closed session. That meant neither the public nor the press would be able to observe the discussions, which I didn’t think was appropriate.

Now, the Kentucky Department of Education just released News Advisory 15-047 which has a revised agenda showing virtually all of the meeting will now be open to the public. Here is the revised agenda:

I. Call to Order, 8 a.m. ET
II. Roll Call
III. Discussion of Characteristics for the Next Commissioner — Gene Wilhoit, Facilitator (8:05 – 10 a.m. ET; Open Session)
IV. Search Firm Interview Process (10 a.m. ET; Open Session)
V. Deliberations on Search Firm Presentation (Open Session)
VI. Consideration of a Motion to Select a Search Firm to Conduct the Commissioner of Education Search (Open Session)
VII. Lunch and Discussion of KBE Members’ Attendance at KSB and KSD Graduation Ceremonies (Open Session)
VIII. Conversation with Selected Vendor on Process/Timeline for Search (Open Session)
IX. Discussion with Search Firm on Potential Candidates for Commissioner (Closed Session)
X. Adjournment

This is certainly an improvement, but I still have concerns about the rather rushed program outlined above and other issues, as well.

For one thing, it seems like an awfully fast paced process to generate a Request for Proposals (RFP) bid to prospective search firms and to have that processed to the point where the board can make a final selection in only one month’s time (Commissioner Holliday announced he was leaving during the April 1, 2015 Kentucky Board of Education meeting and the board voted for an RFP release later that same day). After all, an RFP has to be advertised for a certain period of time so prospective bidders will have a chance to learn of the opportunity and generate a proposal.

Something else rather curious is that the education department pulled its original news release about the short-notice board meeting, issued as News Advisory 15-046, completely off of its web site. The department then substituted the revised agenda with the same News Release 15-046 number and e-mailed it out earlier today.

However, when I went to the Kentucky Department of Education’s web site to find the new release’s web address for you, I learned that the revised News Release about the short-notice meeting is now News Advisory 15-047 in the web site.

Even more incredible, the old 15-046 number has been assigned to another, completely unrelated news item that is dated back in April. How does an April item replace a May item and steal that May item’s news release number? That doesn’t seem right to me.

And, removing the original news release makes it impossible to determine exactly what the original version said and how that got changed.

Also, I wonder: is a news release, once released, a public record? Can/should a public record be deleted like this once issued?

Anyway, stay tuned.

Will hiring of new Kentucky Commissioner of Education be rushed…again?

A special meeting to hire a search firm for the next Kentucky Commissioner of Education was just announced – on short notice – in Kentucky Department of Education News Advisory No. 15-046. This really catches my attention. Are we going to rush a really critical decision?

First of all, some background: Kentucky’s history of hiring education commissioners isn’t exactly sterling. In 2007 the Kentucky Board of Education conducted a search largely in secret using a search firm that charitably didn’t do its job well. The state almost wound up with a very problematic choice. Kentucky narrowly dodged that bullet when the selection for commissioner found herself in legal trouble in her former position and resigned a few days before actually taking over the helm here.

Given this history, I was uneasy about this new News Advisory announcing a short-notice meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education – starting at an unusually early hour in – not Frankfort – but Louisville. This venue probably means the meeting won’t be webcast, a departure from current state board transparency.

Here is the proposed agenda for this important meeting:

I. Call to Order, 8 a.m. ET
II. Roll Call
III. Discussion of Characteristics for the Next Commissioner — Gene Wilhoit, Facilitator (8:05 – 10 a.m. ET; Open Session)
IV. Search Firm Interview Process (10 a.m. ET; Closed Session)
V. Deliberations on Search Firm Presentations (Closed Session)
VI. Consideration of a Motion to Select a Search Firm to Conduct the Commissioner of Education Search (Open Session)
VII. Lunch (12:00-12:30 p.m. EDT)
VIII. Conversation with Selected Vendor on Process/Timeline for Search (12:30 p.m. EDT; Open Session)
IX. Discussion with Search Firm on Potential Candidates for Commissioner (Closed Session)
X. Adjournment

Notice several parts of the meeting (Items IV, V and IX) will be conducted in closed session (i.e. secret). Secrecy was at the heart of many problems with the 2007 commissioner hiring mess. Shouldn’t the current board avoid it as much as possible? Because a contract with the search firm is involved, some parts of the May 7 meeting might need to be conducted in closed session, but let’s carefully consider this agenda.

The agenda indicates the board first intends to discuss what they want in the next commissioner under the facilitation of Gene Wilhoit. Wilhoit is a past commissioner here, but should he be the only voice except for the board during this critical deliberation?

Shouldn’t other key players, maybe the heads of some chambers of commerce, some representatives from higher education, some parents and even teachers also be heard? How about hearing from some superintendents, too? I’ll even allow that the teachers union has a dog in this fight but doesn’t seem to be invited, either.

Why does the board need “facilitation?” The Kentucky Board of Education normally conducts its business under its own chair’s leadership. I have no doubt that current Kentucky Board of Education chair Roger Markum is more than capable of running this discussion.

Use of a facilitator can introduce enormous biases into the process.

I wonder, is “facilitating” of the functions of an official Kentucky state agency by a private citizen even allowed? Could Mr. Markum inappropriately be passing his leadership responsibility and authority on to another, unappointed and unelected official with such a process?

To be very honest, I am wary of facilitated meetings. They often are used to push agendas rather than as a way to develop solid policy. Facilitators were used in the Common Core process, for example, and they proved highly problematic.

I have more questions about the commissioner search meeting. Click the “Read more” link to see them.

[Read more...]

Right-to-work: Counties need not wait for a legal ‘resolution’

Right-to-Work logoWhile 12 Kentucky counties have passed American’s first local right-to-work ordinances, only one – Hardin County, which passed legislation in January allowing employees to say “no” to paying union dues without losing their jobs – has been the subject of a lawsuit by labor unions.

Some county magistrates who supported first readings of local right-to-work ordinances have been subjected to verbal intimidation by labor-union bosses and, as a result, are considering waiting until the lawsuit against Hardin is resolved before moving forward.

However, there are good reasons for counties to dismiss the union hype and move forward now on right-to-work ordinances:

  • The reason only one right-to-work county is facing a lawsuit is that labor unions have the venue they sought in a federal courtroom in Louisville. Unions have little interest or incentive in filing elsewhere as they clearly lack standing in many counties and do not believe they have much chance for legal success.
  • Judge-executives and fiscal-court magistrates in counties with no private unionized employers need not even worry about legal action as labor unions cannot get standing to file a lawsuit in counties where they lack a presence.
  • Even in counties with unionized employers in the private sector, unions can get standing only if the contract is up for renewal in 2015. Even then, if a union contract is up for renewal between July 2015 and December 2015, labor unions “would have a tough time showing it was affected by an ordinance, sit it isn’t even in negotiations for a new contract until after the Hardin case is decided,” (likely sometime in June), said legal expert Brent Yessin with national nonprofit Protect My Check.
  • Companies looking to expand or relocate are not waiting to express an interest in coming to Kentucky until the lawsuit is resolved. Why should Kentucky’s local leaders? Employers already are contacting counties that have passed right-to-work ordinances, making it obvious they don’t believe much in either the unions’ propaganda or chances for courtroom success.
  • More than 30 companies have shown interest in projects – representing 3,000-plus jobs and $300,000 in capital investment – in Warren County since that southcentral Kentucky county’s fiscal court passed the nation’s first local right-to-work ordinance on Dec. 19.
  • Unlike Warren County, there are no private-sector union employers in Rockcastle County. So by passing its own right-to-work ordinance, Rockcastle County, led by Judge-Executive Doug Bishop, can now be placed on companies’ site-selection lists without facing a union lawsuit as no unions have standing in that county. Rockcastle County will have a head start on counties that buy into the union hype or legal fear mongering.
  • Despite their lack of standing and chances of success in court, unions continue to try and intimidate local leaders from moving ahead by showing up at fiscal-court meetings and publicly chastising magistrates for moving forward and “wasting taxpayers’ money on an unnecessary legal battle” or some such nonsense. Again, unions don’t even have legal standing in most counties, which renders moot most of their legal threats.
  • Even if a union did file suit against another county, the fees will not be paid for by taxpayers but by Protect My Check, a national non-profit organization which is raising the funds to cover such costs and has already has agreements with several counties that have moved ahead with right-to-work ordinances. The Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO) is – as it should be – covering the legal fees for Hardin County.
  • Union bosses have promised county leaders that we won’t hear nary a peep from them again if they lose the Hardin County case. Believing this claim would require a complete suspension of reality as the unions never accept right-to-work without very contentious fights.

Unions, in fact, just lost (as they usually do in these cases) after challenging Indiana’s right-to-work law – passed in 2012 – all the way to the Hoosier State’s Supreme Court. If they were that determined with statewide right-to-work legislation – which has passed in 25 states – how much more determined will they be to stop an innovative and new idea such as local ordinances? (Note: the unions lost the Indiana Supreme Court decision, as they usually do when challenging right-to-work laws.)

If the labor unions lose the Louisville decision, which likely will be released in June, don’t think that they will not be right back in July in an attempt to intimidate more Kentucky county-court magistrates and judge-executives from moving forward with right-to-work policies … and the economic-development opportunities they already are proving to offer in Kentucky counties.

Keep updated here on Kentucky’s local right-to-work campaign.

Common Core testing problems surfacing again

The 2015 school testing season is really just now under way in many states, but problems with Common Core and other state testing have already hit nearly a third of all the states. Here is the listing of states reporting problems, which was assembled by FairTest as of May 4, 2015.

FairTest Listing of States with Testing Problems to 4May15

Disruptions have led to postponements and even allegations of testing company breach of contract in Nevada.

Meanwhile, Kentucky testing is only now starting, with weather impacts from last winter likely causing delay of testing in a number of school districts. You see, under the provisions of Senate Bill 1 from the 2009 Regular Legislative Session:

“(6) Beginning in the 2011-2012 academic year, each school district shall administer the statewide student assessment during the last fourteen (14) days of school in the district’s instructional calendar. Testing shall be limited to no more than five (5) days.” (Enrolled Version of SB-1, 2009 Regular Session, Page 11).

So, testing here shouldn’t start until within the last two weeks of school, and with most schools now delaying closing until the very end of May or even June, it is still too early to know if Kentucky will have problems.

You can learn more from the FairTest web site here.

Bluegrass Beacon: Common Core wrongly ignores higher-level courses

Bluegrass Beacon Guest Post by Richard G. Innes
There’s been a lot of discussion about how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are moving Kentucky education forward.

However, while both standards seem somewhat better than the former, highly inadequate Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS), I don’t think students across the Bluegrass State are getting everything lawmakers intended when the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) in 2009.

For example, the standards packages wrongly ignore higher level high-school courses.

“Back in 2009, when I co-sponsored Senate Bill 1, the legislature’s goal was loftier than what we have with the Common Core,” retired state Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, wrote in a recent Lexington Herald-Leader op-ed. “Our bill explicitly required the Kentucky Department of Education to meet the education needs of all students, including our more advanced students who need quality high-school courses in subjects like trigonometry, pre-calculus, chemistry and physics.”

Retired Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs, another of the bill’s co-sponsors, recently e-mailed me his concern “that too many of our kids were leaving high school totally unprepared to pass entry level post-secondary coursework, not to mention the more rigorous and demanding expectations advanced students entering STEM careers would face. In passing SB 1, we wanted to establish a model curriculum in Kentucky that first and foremost declared schools would expect a high level of achievement of ALL students.”

SB 1’s intention to serve all students is explicit in the language about the new assessments. The legislation states: “The results of the assessment program developed under this subsection shall be used to determine appropriate instructional modifications for all students in order for students to make continuous progress including that needed by advanced learners (underline for emphasis added).”

Lawmakers clearly wanted assessments that included more than just minimal standards.

Understanding this helps flesh out what SB 1 really intends in its discussion of the new “Content Standards.” A key part of the bill reads: “Ensure that the standards are aligned from elementary to high school to postsecondary education so that students can be successful at each education level.”

There’s no mention of providing only minimum standards that serve only minimal needs.

In fact, SB 1 directs people creating the new K-12 education standards to consider the very best from foreign countries.

Few, if any, top-performing countries would ignore trigonometry and pre-calculus or the high school chemistry and physics courses that CCSS and NGSS omit. These courses are essential for students who want to pursue more advanced college work such as careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas – something educators in top-performing countries know but that was ignored by those who created CCSS and NGSS.

Perhaps you wonder, “Why are advanced standards important? We certainly don’t expect all students to master them.”

That’s true, but without standards for advanced high-school courses like trigonometry and chemistry, there’s no way to ensure every student in Kentucky who wants to go on to a STEM career actually has the opportunity to do so.

Without such standards, the state also cannot provide evidence that advanced courses are even being offered, let alone whether the quality is at least minimally acceptable.

The absence of advanced-learner standards creates the potential for highly inequitable situations where students from higher-income communities have real STEM opportunities while those from lower-income homes are left out. That’s unequal education, which is clearly wrong for Kentucky.

Presently, the CCSS are under review for change in Kentucky, which offers the opportunity to fix these obvious oversights by adding standards for upper-level high school courses that many students need and should be allowed to access.

It’s time to keep the promise of SB 1.

Richard G. Innes is the staff education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Contact him at dinnes@freedomkentucky.com.

Kids still don’t know much about history

Or geography and civics, either

New results from 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in eighth grade history, civics and geography are out, and Education Week reports the kids flat lined with the dismal performance from four years earlier in 2010.

What kids across the country know about those subjects is apparently truly dismal. For example, the NAEP Report Highlights show only 18 percent, less than one in five, eighth grade students tested proficient or more in U.S. History. That is grim!

NAEP 2014 History, Geography and Civics Summary

These NAEP tests only include nationwide results, but given the debacle currently under way with the attempt last October to revise Kentucky’s social studies standards, I am pretty sure Kentucky’s kids would not shine on these tests.

By the way, it’s about time for another version of those Kentucky social studies standards to come up for review. I hope that the deplorable mess that was presented in October 2014 has been replaced with something much better. Certainly, the new NAEP results show our kids need a lot more than most are getting now and a set of standards essentially “devoid” of content won’t cut it.

Hechinger Reports: Are the Common Core tests turning out to be a big success or a resounding failure?

Hechinger isn’t exactly a conservative operation (HQ at Columbia Teachers College in New York City), but they are increasingly raising questions about the viability of the Common Core.

In their latest post, “Are the Common Core tests turning out to be a big success or a resounding failure?” this education news crew says:

“Last week, technical issues brought testing to a halt in three states, while in yet more states, thousands of parents refused to let their students sit for exams that are expected to be much harder than the old state tests they are replacing. This all comes at a time when the standards, the tests and how test scores are used are being fiercely debated by school boards, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.”

Hechinger also points out:

“Meanwhile in New York, over 150,000 students opted not to take that state’s Common Core-aligned tests. And across the country in Portland, Oregon, just about five percent of students opted out of the tests. Federal funding is at risk when more than five percent of students don’t take mandated annual tests, though it is unclear whether or how states or districts will be punished.”

So far, things have not been as dramatic here in Kentucky as they have been in states like New York, but there is no question that Common Core and testing pushback is growing in the Bluegrass State, too. On the technical issues side, the state and the ACT, Inc. were never able to fix the problems with the high school End-of-Course exams open response written answer questions, and they still are not being used.

Since we are still several weeks away from the primary end-of-year test period (Old Man Winter had something to do with that), it’s too soon to say if there will be more online testing problems, as well. But, Kentucky has had issues with online testing in the past as I discuss here and here.

Also, protesting here seems to be on the increase a bit. I don’t think last week’s protest during US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s visit to Louisville would have happened a year or so ago.

So, stand by for more.

Kentucky’s teachers union falling out of alignment with own national union members

A New York Times article says it plainly. While teachers’ unions across the country are starting to align with parents and conservatives to fight what they say is excessive testing in schools, the Times writes:

“In Kentucky, where the education commissioner has said parents do not have the right to opt their children out of tests, the state union is not pushing back. ‘We have to have an assessment of standards,’ said Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association. She added that parents could not ‘pick and choose’ which parts of public education they wanted their children to participate in.”

Could that trigger a revolt within the ranks of Kentucky’s teachers? The Times also writes:

“A national group of teachers claiming more than 50,000 members has criticized both of the main unions for supporting the Common Core and is pushing for the abandonment of all standardized tests.”

We don’t hear much in Kentucky about individual teacher dissatisfaction with their union, but that’s no guarantee such displeasure isn’t out there. After all, there’s a whole lot we don’t hear much about in Kentucky – at least until things dramatically boil over. Regarding testing, we were constantly told how great the old KIRIS and CATS tests were right up to the time the legislature reacted to lots of built up pressure – including plenty from teachers – and cancelled those tests.

Kentucky doesn’t seem to do these sorts of policy things nice and easy like the famous, relatively slow-moving Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. Our policy changes seem to come more like the dramatic explosion of Chile’s Calbuco Volcano. All rather quiet until suddenly there is a huge Kaboom.

Will such an explosion overtake the teachers’ union leaders in Kentucky? Only time will tell. But, with many other teachers’ unions around the country now departing sharply from policies still supported by union leaders here, I wouldn’t take any bets on this one.

Bluegrass Beacon: Federal dollars subvert federalism

BluegrassBeaconLogoWe’ve come – or drifted – a long way since then-President Andrew Jackson vetoed a bill in 1830 that would have provided aid for a Kentucky road project.

Jackson argued that forcing taxpayers nationwide to pay for the road would be a “subversion of the federal system” since it was of “purely local character.”

Not only has such restraint – especially on the part of Washington – been a rarity during our lifetimes, but the increasing dependence of most states on federal funding for local projects has resulted in the “gold-plated octagon problem” that even Washington used to lament.

“Officials who evolved the administration’s revenue-sharing proposals say they are trying to solve ‘the gold-plated octagon problem,’” wrote the late Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert L. Bartley in the March 3, 1971 edition of that publication. “One explains, ‘If the federal government were giving away gold-plated octagons, and the cities had to pay half the cost, every damn city in the nation would have one.’”

But Washington power-seekers now not only tolerate such dependence, they welcome it – viewing such attachment to federal funding as a way to force upon states policies that the Constitution leaves no room for the federal government to meddle with.

Not only does such an approach weaken states’ ability to protect their citizens against increasing overreach by the federal government, it also can have downright absurd results.

How else do you explain the fact that drivers get ticketed in Kentucky if anyone in their vehicle gets caught not wearing a seat belt, but motorcyclists older than 21 years of age are not required to even wear a helmet while on the road?

The aha! moment comes when you discover that our Washington masters threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of federal highway-fund dollars unless Kentucky passed a seat-belt law.

Some well-intentioned policymakers hold that if Kentucky doesn’t take its share of federal pork, other states will.

Such an attitude has allowed a “subversion of the federal system” that promises to be much-more harmful than the erosion of personal liberty signified by tightly strapped seat belts.

When the Obama administration waved $4.3 billion of so-called “Race to the Top” funding in front of states in 2009, it did so with the intention of inducing them to do what the feds have absolutely no constitutional business meddling with: adopt one-size-fits-all educational standards.

State bureaucrats care little about minor nuisances like constitutional principles – especially when so much money is at stake.

Combine that apathy for how federalism is supposed to work with the fact that the states were having their toughest times since the Great Depression figuring out how to balance their budgets, and bureaucrats jumped at the cash.

Kentucky like a desperate date jumped first and hard.

The worst part of this story, though, is that it unalterably committed an entire commonwealth and its students to Common Core State Standards four months before anyone even knew what those standards – the result of a very nontransparent process – would even actually look like.

Common Core now is recognized as a dumbed-down, minimalist approach totally lacking in key academic areas like advanced high-school mathematics – coursework needed to ensure students have access to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The naïve supporters not only of this policy – but of the way it went down – will, with serious faces, claim “this isn’t federally mandated policy.” Yet without the promise of Race to the Top dollars, many states would have told Washington where it could get off – on Ninth and Tenth Amendment streets.

As the “gold-plated octagon” represents, not only do most state policymakers and bureaucrats seem to lack any real will to address this subversion, but like addicts, want the thrill of the rush even if it puts vulnerable citizens at risk of being negatively impacted by harmful policy.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

School choice breaking out all over (except in Kentucky)

While Kentucky has failed to even enact one of the most basic forms of school choice, charter schools, education programs in other states are moving out even farther ahead of us into much more dramatic school choice-territory.

Several days ago Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a school-voucher bill for his state that gives families of students with special needs more educational options than ever before.

Some highlights of the new Arkansas bill:

* Each student’s voucher will be funded at a level between a current student support level ($6,521 in 2014-15), up to but not exceeding the amount of tuition and fees at the private school.

* Students must have had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and been enrolled in an Arkansas public school for at least one year. Dependents of active-duty members of the military are also eligible.

Arkansas is far from alone in the choice area. Nevada’s governor, Brian Sandoval, just signed a tax-credit scholarship bill for his state to benefit low-income students.

* Under this new Nevada legislation, students can qualify for scholarships up to a maximum of $7,775 in 2015-16. That limit will increase according to the Consumer Price Index increase each year.

* All students receiving scholarships under this new Nevada program must come from families whose household incomes are at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($72,750 for a family of four in 2015-16).

* The Nevada money never enters the tax stream. It is handled by Scholarship Granting Organizations that collect money from corporations who get a tax credit for their grants. This is a great way to offer students from modest to low-income homes school choice options that otherwise would be totally unavailable to them.

Kentucky has plenty of low-income and special needs students, and their achievement gaps have been the subject of much discussion – but sadly not that much progress – ever since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 was enacted.

Many of these Kentucky students are poorly served by the one-size-must-fit-all traditional school system in this state – a system which offers virtually no real choice options. It’s time for Kentucky to move beyond its very closed-minded and traditional school mindset that mostly just suits the staff.

It’s time to start doing things like what Arkansas and Nevada just did for the kids, instead.